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Authority, obedience and conscience: new challenges, new tensions

January 22, 2021

These are the strangest of times. As of this reading, things will likely be different than they were a month ago.

How much so? I cannot guess. But as a retired minister now serving as a spiritual director, I can say the anxiousness felt by the pastors I see will continue.

These pastors have been putting in long hours, figuring out new technologies and imagining innovative ways to be the church. Adding to the pressure of having to master new skills are the session showdowns that can happen when ruling elders and pastors might disagree on how to move the church forward. Ruling elders might not be feeling the holiness of virtual worship. They will put up with doing church differently for a while, but they aren’t going to wait for the “all clear” from their state before insisting on returning to church life before COVID-19 safety precautions existed. Which leads to the question: What is the relationship, in this new time, between faithful obedience and faithful conscience?

The Westminster Confession of Faith, drawn up in 1646, says that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (Chapter 20, Question 2). The Barmen Declaration, written in 1934 in response to Hitler’s influence on German Christians, proclaims that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and faith” (II.8.11).

“God alone is Lord of the conscience” is a hallmark for Presbyterians, meaning that faithful women and men, as they seek to follow Jesus Christ, study and interpret Scripture together in making decisions for the church. This Presbyterian governance of shared decision-making works most of the time. But now we have sessions needing to discuss seismic shifts in how church is done. When does a pastor take a stand?

In the “Book of Order” we find perspective, but perhaps not definitive guidance. G-3.0201 says, “The session shall have responsibility for governing the congregation and guiding its witness.” However, G-2.0501 says that pastors are to “discern the mind of Christ and to build up Christ’s body through devotion, debate and decision.” Pastors are also to “participate in governing responsibilities, including leadership in the congregation” (G-2.0504).

If paradox is the essence of truth, we are there. Session members are elected to lead the congregation, not the pastor. Ruling elders are to rule, but pastors — also called teaching elders — are to teach. Teaching with authority, though, is not always easy, especially when the pastor is new to a church or younger than most of the elders. Studies show that the saints in the pews keep getting older, while the saints in the pulpits will likely keep getting younger. Still pastors, with many of the tough decisions that needed to be made, are finding themselves compelled to stand their ground. But the stand must be based in prayer, Scripture, and a commitment to faithfulness to God and not just one’s self.

A statement issued by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology and Worship at the start of the recent pandemic also states that at a time of high anxiety “pastors and other congregational leaders have an important role in setting an appropriate tone for the church’s response.” The statement continues: “Leaders can model a response that is faithful, gracious and wise — trusting God in all things, remaining calm in a time of distress.”

In my own ministry, some 20 years ago, I faced a moment of truth when my capacity to keep everyone happy collided with my deep conscience. The issue was over sexuality, and session and I spent six months debating nothing else. We lost members. We lost giving revenue. Yet the session worked together. We came out the other end a new church. I most certainly was a different pastor.

Everyone will walk this walk uniquely, but remember you are not alone. The “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) is with you, and we rejoice that “nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Brief Statement of Faith; Rom. 8:38–9).

 David Butler, Honorably Retired as Minister in the PC(USA) 2012, Member of John Knox Presbytery, living with his wife on a farm in Montello, Wisconsin

Today’s Focus:  Pastors and Leadership

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Monica Buonincontri, Board of Pensions
Cherrie Burch, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray:

Most gracious God, we seek your help to multiply the resources of those who struggle daily to meet the needs of their families. It is your power that can overcome the challenges faced by the many communities. Give us the strength to stand beside them. Amen.